Monday, October 02, 2017

Modi’s bear hug of the Father of the Nation

PM seems to have sensed the potent symbolism of Gandhi, the national icon

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) before Narendra Modi had been lukewarm towards Mahatma Gandhi at best. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was more inclined towards Jawaharlal Nehru than the Mahatma though he did flirt with Gandhian socialism when the BJP was launched in 1980. The reservations of the Hindu Right towards the man who unequivocally spoke the Hindu religious idiom and at the same time was scrupulously respectful towards Christianity and Islam, and who would bend over backwards to assuage the apprehensions of religious minorities, were understandable. Gandhi bothered the Hindu partisans because they could not denounce him as they could Nehru with his liberal, secular outlook. Gandhi was an ultra-conservative in a sense, especially in matters of religion and morality and yet he would not budge on the issue of the rights of the minorities. The piety of Gandhi was rooted in Hinduism. This is to be found in the fact that Gandhi derived his worldview more from traditional Hinduism than from the New Testament. What attracted the Europeans to Gandhi was that they felt that he was following the Sermon on the Mount in his personal life, which they rarely did.

The other problem that Gandhi posed to the right-wingers – and this includes Muslims as much as the Hindus – was that he was a staunch nationalist but he did not believe in nationalism that demanded total loyalty. It is his ambivalent attitude towards nationalism that was a problem for the Hindu right. At the same time, there could not be a more zealous nationalist than Gandhi who shunned everything that was foreign without being a xenophobe. Here was the most religious man who loved other religions as much as his own, and who loved India without claiming that Indian culture and civilisation were superior to other countries and other cultures. This translated into ethical pacifism, which was what the Hindu fanatics hated in him. Let it be noted that Gandhi was not very popular with the Muslim political leadership, and not just the Muslim League. His intense Hinduism perplexed them. And it is this Hinduism of Gandhi that draws the Hindu right while they are repelled by his love of other religions. The Hindu right finds it impossible to be a Hindu and love other religions, and to be an Indian and love other cultures. The ideological basis of the Hindu Right is Hindu supremacism, very much like the ‘white supremacism’ of Europe and North America.

So, what is the strategy of Prime Minister Modi when he continuously harps on celebrating Gandhi’s iconic status and he wants to remould the country to mark Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary in 2019? There is reason to suspect that Modi feels most at home with Gandhi, the Gujarati. Remember that apart from writing in English for political purposes, Gandhi wrote his Hind Swaraj and his Autobiography in Gujarati. Perhaps this endears Gandhi to Modi in an intangible fashion. But more importantly, Modi recognises through sheer political cunning – and let it be understood that Gandhi was a supreme master of political cunning – that Gandhi is a useful national symbol, and it is possible to invoke Gandhi without in any way adhering to the Gandhian doctrine of ethical pacifism. This can be called opportunism, cynicism on the part of the prime minister and the BJP supremo. Invoking Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, who is the real inspiration for the BJP, would not have the same impact as invoking Gandhi across the country. Modi knows that Gandhi is the talisman to reach out to the whole of India.

There are glaring contradictions in Modi’s embrace of Gandhi. But he must have felt that logical and political contradictions do not matter when you are dealing with symbols, images and myths because symbols, images and myths transcend logic and mesmerise the collective mind. Modi must have also realised that the Congress party, from Nehru onwards, had used Gandhi as a potent symbol without following his ideas. Nehru was diametrically opposed to Gandhian thinking more than even the BJP and Modi. But Nehru retained Gandhi as the political mentor of Congress was. There is no doubt that Gandhi remained a quintessential Congressman. He led the freedom struggle through the Congress, and he allowed constitutionalists, socialists, communists to function within the Congress. It was natural for Congress to invoke Gandhi more than the socialists. Jyaprakash Narayan must have sensed this chasm that divided the socialists from Gandhi the Congress leader. That is why, he felt obliged to give up socialist politics to become a Gandhian. Communists were politically honest because they did not ever invoke Gandhi.

The challenge that Modi faces with Gandhi is that he will have to wrench Gandhi away from Gandhi’s political roots in the Congress. The Hindu Mahasabha opposed Gandhi, and so did Bharatiya Jan Sangh of Syama Prasad Mookerji vintage. Deen Dayal Upadhyaya may have been drawn towards Gandhi because of Gandhi’s pronounced nativism and religious piety but he would have soon realised that it is difficult to reconcile with Gandhi’s open-door policy towards other religions. Modi knows that he should not talk about Gandhian ideas and that he should confine himself to celebrating the iconic Gandhi. This strategy has its political uses. Modi wants to use Gandhi as the national symbol though Gandhi did not believe in the fierce narrow-minded nationalism of the BJP kind. There is also the advantage that Gandhi, like yoga, can be marketed in the international market as well and with equal felicity. Unlike in the case of yoga, which is value neutral in its physical performance, it will be difficult to reduce Gandhi to a mere symbol. Gandhi’s moral insistence on treating the religious minorities on an equal footing with the majority Hindus will be the proverbial thorn in the flesh for Modi and the BJP. Many middle class and lower middleclass Hindus hate Gandhi because of his solicitude towards the religious minorities. Can Modi afford to alienate the Hindu constituency? It looks like that Modi is looking to the Hindu masses, beyond the Hindu classes. And he thinks that Gandhi is the ideal symbol with which to reach out to the masses.

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